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Quartet with Baltimore ties reunited
SAN DIEGO – Chargers Park will have a family reunion feel to it during the next few weeks.
San Diego now features four former Ravens, all of whom are expected to start or play crucial roles at their respective positions.
Antwan Barnes was the first, an unheralded signing in the middle of the 2010 season necessitated by a number of injuries at outside linebacker. Barnes showed promise and played well in a few games, but his 4.5 sacks did not register on the big impact radar of most observers.
Then he led the team with 11 sacks last season and is poised to be a key cog in San Diego’s pass rush opposite Shaun Phillips in 2012.
Jared Gaither came next by way of Kansas City, which released the left tackle after he came off the bench in the fourth quarter on a crucial drive against Pittsburgh on short notice and false started. The Chargers, with Marcus McNeill on Reserve-Injured, saw an opportunity to improve their offensive line, and placed a successful waiver claim on the 6-foot-9, 340-pound behemoth.
“I don’t know that I’ve ever been around a situation where a guy had as immediate an impact as Jared did over the last five weeks,” Head Coach Norv Turner said.
Gaither took advantage of the chance, shoving aside the history associated with him after dealing with a tough injury in Baltimore, and didn’t allow a sack.
“It was a blessing in disguise,” Gaither said of getting cut by the Chiefs. “(I wanted to) give everything I have. Leave no stone unturned and work hard.”
The Chargers rewarded Gaither with a four-year contract this week. After calling it the greatest day of his life, Gaither stepped away from the podium Friday and grinned, giving a knowing back-slap to Le’Ron McClain in their third city together.
McClain played for Baltimore and Kansas City as well.
“We’ve got some guys around here that I know. Jared Gaither. Double J (Jarret Johnson) is coming in town. Antwan Barnes. So it feels like home a little bit already,” McClain said.
The fullback pumped up Ryan Mathews on Friday, saying No. 24’s best football is still ahead of him. McClain said he’s glad to be on a team with an effective passing game and a Pro Bowl quarterback, and happy the Chargers may use him as a runner, pass-catcher and in pass protection. But his main focus is to “blow up” linebackers.
“Le’Ron brings a very physical presence to every game he’s in,” Turner said. “I think Ryan Mathews had the biggest smile I’ve seen in a couple years when we told him we’d signed Le’Ron.”
Barnes, Gaither and McClain all entered the NFL together in Baltimore in 2007 and are re-united in San Diego.
The fourth player, Johnson, arrived in Southern California later Friday afternoon. The former defensive end is stout at the point of attack and has a relentless playing style.
“One thing that you see is his intensity out there on the field and the passion he brings when he plays,” defensive coordinator John Pagano said of Johnson, though he easily could’ve been talking about the three other players.
“He plays at such a high level and he’s a high motor guy that really knows only one speed, and that’s full speed. And then the leadership qualities that he’s going to bring to our team off the field in the classroom, in the locker room, that’s why we went out and got that guy.”
Johnson remembers Barnes for his athleticism, and now the two may share the right outside linebacker position. Johnson’s presence means Barnes will not have to play as many snaps as he did a year ago when Shaun Phillips and Larry English were hurt, which should give him more energy to devote to rushing the passer.
While Johnson will get to the quarterback every now and then, more often he’s shedding blockers to find the ball carrier or covering a tight end or back underneath.
“It was fun having all (Johnson’s former) teammates in earlier today. When they say his name, there’s instant respect,” Turner said. “It’s not that way with everybody. But it tells you something about Jarret, what he’s all about.”
McClain, Johnson and to some extent Gaither hope their familiarity with each other will provide a stronghold from which they can assimilate into the Chargers’ culture fast. The organized offseason activities, which begin April 23 for San Diego, also should help the old friends be ready to make an impact for the Chargers come September.
“Everybody they signed I know and played against,” Johnson said. “They’ve brought in a lot of talent. Playing against the talent that’s already here is impressive. This team without the guys that have been signed is a really good football team.
“This team is a contender. You add a few pieces here and there and you’ve got a bully to deal with.”